Death of the Reader

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 Emily Packer peruses the problems of reading for pleasure as an Oxford studentI have been at Oxford only seven weeks, but as a fresher reading English, I find that my world has already contracted to Anglo-Saxon genitive plurals and the intricate social manoeuvres of the characters of George Eliot and Henry James. I have long ago ceased to read the news or the latest prize-winning novels with any regularity. An unread copy of the Economist peeks forlornly out from under my bed, a memorial to my noble resolutions to remain informed about world events a little more recent than the Battle of Maldon.

This state of affairs is especially surprising to me as an international student from America, where undergraduates do not specialise until their second year and are encouraged to take classes in a variety of art and science subjects. On the one hand, the English system demands greater intellectual focus, independent thought, and a deeper understanding of the chosen subject. On the other, it can sometimes reduce the degree to which students are broadly conversant on a variety of topics.

Aware of this problem, I try to determine whether my colleagues are becoming as poorly read outside their subject as I. At breakfast, I talk, over my soggy eggs and tomatoes, to a graduate fresher reading financial economics, who describes his outside reading as ‘one book every two months.’ Ashley, a first-year biochemist, concurs, cataloguing her recent bedtime reading as ‘organic chemistry textbooks, biochemistry textbooks, biophysics textbooks…’ Another biochemist confesses to bringing along a store of novels for quiet nights but in fact finding time for no more than a quick glance at the Cherwell in the JCR. (In an occurrence certain to please journo-hacks everywhere, I find that the OxStu and the Cherwell easily top the list of extracurricular reading material. Student editors, bear cautiously your burden of providing overworked students with their sole channel to the outside world). Kiri, a first-year lawyer currently perusing Virginia Woolf’s The Waves in her spare time, is one of the few to establish a healthy balance between required and extracurricular reading: ‘I would say that I manage to strike a pretty good balance between reading what I want to read and what I need to read. It also helps that my subject is throwing a lot of interesting documents my way…I’m reading things within my subject that I would never have encountered in my normal reading pattern.’

Nonetheless, most students feel a definite conflict between their personal and their curricular reading, and some have actively tried to redress the imbalance. The Christ Church Cavaliers, a newly formed book club at the aforementioned college, plans to create a forum for the discussion of books from a variety of genres, from classic novels to history texts. Founder Edward Charlton-Jones and the other permanent members hope to include students from non-arts subjects who might otherwise be unlikely to participate. The club, rumoured to feature swords and heraldic crests (only at the House…), will no doubt become a mainstay of inter-subject reading.

In addition, the average Oxford student can partake of a wide range of extracurricular activities designed to broaden his experience beyond the bounds of his subject. Debates at the Union provide students with a fair and balanced look at loonies from across the political spectrum. Clubs ranging from the Asia-Pacific Society to the Yacht Club cater to every cultural, recreational, charitable, or culinary taste, no matter how obscure, while the Law and Finance Societies offer abundant free champagne and canapés in exchange for advance rights to your firstborn child and immortal soul. In short, though time for extracurricular reading may be scant, Oxford students are only as much in thrall to their subjects as they allow themselves to be, and opportunities for a well-rounded education in and out of the classroom are available to all.

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